In Teheran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the last word. But is the “No” of Iran’s spiritual leader really his last word when it comes to negotiating directly with the U.S. in the conflict over his country’s nuclear program?
Maybe not. His position must be seen in the context of Iran’s domestic politics - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is not in Khamenei’s good books, only has four more months in office. Taking such a huge step as starting to reconcile with the U.S. - something most Iranians want - is not going to take place while Ahmadinejad is in office.
In this conflict, now over a decade old, so many red lines have been crossed, so many opportunities wasted, so many deadlines frittered away, that there is no longer such a thing as “never.” Israeli leaders have been seeing the imminent advent of an Iranian bomb since the mid-1990s.
On the other hand, a few years ago Khamenei himself said that if it served Iran to cultivate relations with the U.S., he would be the first to do so. And if things get that far he wants the credit to go to him, not to reformers or populists. Now however, the Americans have tightened sanctions against Teheran so from his standpoint talk is useless. “I’m not a diplomat, I’m a revolutionary,” he says.
A solution to the conflict is possible despite Khamenei’s deep-rooted mistrust of the Americans. Settling the exasperating dispute about uranium and centrifuges would end economic sanctions - and then nothing more would stand in the way of broader reconciliation between the two countries. But here’s the rub - the spiritual leader fears nothing as much as he fears free exchange between people, free exchange of thought and goods. Every chance he gets, he warns of “cultural invasion.”
In Khamenei’s view, the spread of cultural values would lead to moral corruption, promiscuity and the destruction of social fabric. In that sense such values are far more dangerous to him than military attack. Washington pundits are credited with saying that mini-skirts would be more effective than bombs in Iran. This fear is what has led to the recent increase of pressure on Iranian journalists, artists and intellectuals, and the demonization of opposition leaders as “deviants.” For Khamenei, economic sanctions are the lesser of two evils.
In conversation with the sociologist Gilles Lipovetsky, novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa discusses the relative merits of “high” and “mass” culture in the contemporary world and defends the ideas explored in his recent book La civilización del espectáculo.
Mario Vargas Llosa: La civilización del espectáculo is an attempt to express a feeling of concern, an anguish of sorts, on seeing what we understood by “culture” when I was young, changing during my lifetime into something very different, something essentially distinct from what we understood by “culture” in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. The book attempts to describe this transformation and examine the effects of the vagaries of what we call culture today on different aspects of human activity - social, political, religious, sexual and so on - given that culture is something that impregnates all we do in life.
The book doesn’t set out to be pessimistic, but it does aim to be disturbing and to encourage people to think about whether the hegemonic role entertainment and distraction have assumed in our time have also caused them to become central to cultural life. I believe that this is the case and that it has happened with the blessing of wide sections of society, including those who traditionally have represented society’s institutions and cultural values.
In my view, Gilles Lipovetsky is one of the thinkers today to have analysed this new culture in the greatest depth and with the utmost rigour. In his book The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, he has expertly described what this new culture consists of. Unlike me, he has approached it without anxiety, without an undue sense of alarm, but with sympathy, seeing in it features he considers highly positive. For example, the democratizing effect of a culture that extends to everyone, a culture that, unlike traditional culture, doesn’t make distinctions, is not monopolized by an elite, by coteries of scholars or intellectuals, but permeates the whole of society in one way or another.
He also says, and it’s an interesting and debatable point, that this culture has led to greater individual freedom. Unlike in the past - when the individual was, in a way, the prisoner, the expression, of a culture - individuals today can choose between a wide range of cultural possibilities, thus exercising not only their sovereignty and free will, but also their taste and personal inclinations. He argues that this culture is one that permits people to seek their pleasure in activities that are categorized as cultural but that in the past wouldn’t have been considered as such. These ideas are debatable: at times they convince me; at other times they leave me undecided. I think that a dialogue between our two positions - positions that are different but that might, in some ways, be complementary - could be very fruitful.
Romney Won the Michigan Primary by Carrying Upscale Voters. He’s Still Struggling With Working, Middle Classes - and That’s Trou
Did Mitt Romney win the Michigan primary? Or did he merely survive it? That really depends on your perspective.
As recently as a few days ago, Romney was trailing in the polls. And as recently as Tuesday afternoon, Romney staffers were talking down expectations. But Romney won a clean victory on Tuesday night. He won handily in the Detroit metro area, his home turf, but he also ran strong in more contested counties, like Livingston and Jackson, to the west.
But why was it ever this close? Romney had superior money, organization, and, for a long time, name recognition. This state ought to be friendly to him - not because of his family ties, which were never as important as pundits assumed, but because the economy is the biggest issue in Michigan and Romney bills himself as the candidate best positioned to deal with it. Instead, Romney had to fight off an insurgency from Rick Santorum, who appealed to economically strapped voters by appealing to their cultural values.
Romney succeeded, but the exit polls suggested a familiar class divide. Romney won among voters who attended at least some college and those making more than $100,000 a year. But he lost among voters who attended no college and among those making less than $100,000 a year.
As New York Times economics guru and Washington bureau chief David Leonhardt tweeted, if you genetically engineered the typical Romney voter, it was a single Catholic woman who was older than 65 and with a household income of more than $100,000.
Some people deeply dislike the way the word “honour” kept being dragged in to describe the terrible Shafia murders (even though Mohammad Shafia himself could not shut up about it). These crimes weren’t “honourable” at all. Besides, why single them out as something special and culturally specific? Men murder women every day. This was just another form of domestic violence, which exists in every culture. “It’s unfortunately something that could be anywhere,” Saleha Khan, a board member with a Muslim social-services group, told the Toronto Star after the verdict was announced.
Oh, no, it couldn’t. Yet many people still argue that it’s wrong to attempt to draw links between cultural values and violence against women. Adeena Niazi, executive director of the Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto, told CBC Radio on Monday that Afghan culture really has nothing to do with this case, and it’s unfortunate that some people try to argue otherwise. “It has nothing to do with culture - none of the culture approve violence and killing,” she explained. Instead, the proper way to judge the murderers - Mohammad, his wife Tooba Yahya and their oldest son, Hamed - is as individuals acting on their own.
But of course it’s impossible to understand this crime without the culture. And it’s important to understand honour crimes for exactly what they are. They are not ordinary acts of domestic violence carried out in a fit of rage. Instead, they are carefully premeditated acts that are designed to remove the stain of a wife or daughter’s sexual misconduct (real or imagined) from the family name. They are often approved or tolerated by the community. Wives often condone these crimes against their daughters, or even help commit them. And the perpetrators are invariably convinced of the rightness of their deeds.
We usually associate honour crimes with the poor and unsophisticated. Mohammad Shafia was rich and worldly, which is partly why this case is so shocking. His obsession with his daughters’ sexuality strikes us as pathological. But it’s not unusual in Afghanistan and large parts of the Middle East. In Iraq, after the American invasion, a common form of revenge was to have your enemy’s teenaged daughter abducted and perhaps raped. That would guarantee the ruin of the entire family, which would sometimes kill her for disgracing them. Many girls and their mothers assured me that while this was unbearably cruel and unfair, it was necessary.